Allies Across Borders: Talking to LGBTI Students in Thailand
When I first arrived in Thailand four and a half months ago, I was so enchanted with the idea that this was a place that embraced sexual diversity. From an outsider’s perspective, it was easy to latch onto the idea that Thailand was not only tolerant but also accepting, and people lived with the freedom to express their gender and sexual identity without fear or backlash.
Over the past few months, though, my eyes have been opened to the things that make this not such a straightforward issue. There is still discrimination and there is still stigma—it might not be splashed across the headlines like it often is in the United States, but it is there. It may not look the same as it did in the past—there has been progress—but there are still people who do not understand sexual diversity and the fluidity of gender roles and identity, and because of this the consequences are still felt within the LGBTI community. Whether we are gay, straight, lesbian, transgender, or any combination…this is everyone’s problem. I believe everyone suffers when sexual diversity is not recognised and accepted, no matter where you are in the world.
During my time studying at Chiang Mai University, I have tried to get some answers to my questions about what life is really like here by reaching out to the LGBTI community on campus. The opportunity to speak with students who have lived here their whole lives has begun to give me a clearer picture of the ways things are, at least for them. The conversations I’ve had are hardly enough for me to make any sweeping generalisations, but they have given me a perspective I couldn’t have found anywhere else. I’m certainly no expert, but here I will discuss a few of the things that have come up a lot.
Family can be a source of support or stress. Sometimes, it can be both. For most of the students I talked to, either one or both of their parents did not know their child was LGBTI. Whether it was due to fear of losing financial support for their education or knowing the news would not be met with love or kindness, whether or not one had come out to their closest family members was a topic that always came up.
Of course, not everyone has overtly negative experiences or withholds aspects of their identity from family. I recently spoke with a young transgender woman who told me with a smile that both her parents had been accepting of her when she told them she was transgender. They have been a source of support for her before, during, and after her full transition several years ago. But as we continued talking, she brought up something else that made me question what exactly it means to be “supportive” and brings me to my next point…
Even though this young woman’s mother was supportive, it came with a caveat: as long as her daughter first acknowledged and accepted that as a transgender woman she would never be able to have a real and lasting relationship, especially with a man. Her mother truly believes that no man will ever stay if they know her daughter is transgender, so her support was conditional, based on her daughter’s recognition (or resignation) to this.
This idea came up throughout our conversation—and she seems to have taken it completely to heart, that as a transgender woman she will never be accepted in this way.
I cannot claim to understand what it is like to go through life as transgendered, but I can say that it catches my heart to hear that a beautiful and articulate 23-year-old woman—almost done with university and at the very beginning of the rest of her life—has accepted the idea that no one will ever love her or accept her because of something that, at the end of the day, should not be her one and only defining characteristic.
How can it be true that this well-educated woman has to go through life completely alone because she is transgender? I don’t believe that she will have to live a life without love, but she seemed to be resigned to this idea and certain that the positive outcome of transitioning to a body she feels comfortable and authentic in far outweighed the potential social effects.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that finding and keeping a long-term romantic relationship is a necessary indicator of a person’s success or happiness, but I do believe it is wrong to tell someone who doesn’t conform to society’s narrow ideas of gender and sexuality that they will never truly be accepted by others or that no one else will find them attractive.
Sometimes, you lose friends—but that can mean more room in your life for new ones, for people who are more supportive and caring and understanding.
I spoke with one student who told me he lost his closest friend during his first year at university because the feelings he developed for him weren’t felt in return. Two years later, though, he seemed okay with it, and has a solid group of friends who aren’t at all phased by the fact that he is gay.
Throughout all the conversations I had with LGBTI students, this theme always came up without fail. While everyone had seen friendships change or end when they came out or began a major transition (whether that was sex reassignment surgery or something else), they also described their current friends in positive ways. University life tends to revolve around supportive friend groups and much less isolation than they experienced at earlier points in their education, like secondary school.
As I continue to have these conversations with other students, I often catch myself thinking—is this really my place to be asking these questions? As a foreigner, and as a straight woman, I constantly come up against the struggle with my own good intentions: who am I to be writing about these issues when I can never truly and personally understand them? What am I doing by taking this conversation to a public forum—am I erasing the voices that are most important in this discussion by speaking up myself?
I am trying to be a good ally. But sometimes I don’t really know if I’m doing it right. It is certainly not my place to identify these students by name and put their faces out for the world to see, so I have struggled with how I might be able to share their voices in an appropriate way. But, when I can stop these doubt-filled thoughts for a few minutes, I realize there is something I can say and still know with some confidence that I am not trampling too many other voices in the process. I believe we all suffer when sexual and gender diversity is not embraced.
Back home in the United States, I have read countless articles and stories about violence against the LGBTI community; it has affected my friends and it has affected my own family. In Thailand, it seems, there is less of this happening—or, at least that’s what they want us to believe, and I have not had the time to really figure it out yet. Even then, it isn’t enough that there is less violence because at the end of the day, when I talk to LGBTI university students who tell me they can’t tell their family or that they will have to live alone for the rest of their lives, I know there is still a problem.
As I heard one trans activist say to a class of foreign exchange students: “Maybe we are not physically attacked by people who hate us, but I don’t know what’s worse…if they beat your body, maybe the scar stays for a while, but if they beat you with words I think that stays in your mind or your spirit for a long time.”
I recognise that the limitations of my own experiences impact the extent to which I understand these issues, but I am hopeful that my contribution offers even just a little bit of positive movement in making this world a safer and more accepting one.